How can I become more musically productive?
August 31, 2013 12:15 AM   Subscribe

I have the desire to be a musician, and I have some pretty nice resources, but I can't stick to anything! Help?

So, I've wanted to be a musician for a very long time. And in a sense, the territory isn't completely unfamiliar to me. I took piano lessons all throughout elementary school, I was sort of in a "band" with friends a few times around high school and part of college (though none of that went anywhere and we never even had actual gigs), I've taken some guitar lessons this past year, and I've recorded a few songs solo. But I've never been able to really view myself as a musician, since I have such a hard time finishing anything! I'm 24 years old and I've recorded a total of 5 complete songs in my life. And they're far from professional, too.

I have some nice equipment...I have an M-Audio Oxygen 49 MIDI controller (used to have a larger keyboard but I sold it so I could get this less cumbersome device), Reason 6.5 music software, an audio interface, a microphone and stand, an electric guitar, an acoustic-electric guitar, and an amp. Reason is hard to fully grasp, and every time I try to "tinker" with it and get started on a song, I'll get a little bit done (maybe working for an hour or two) and then abandon the project. Also, my actual playing skills aren't spectacular, but when I play guitar, for instance, it's usually just for a little dollop of enjoyment and I don't bother finishing composing a song. I found that when I was taking lessons I was at least practicing consistently, but that didn't translate into finishing anything I composed either.

I don't feel like my current life circumstances are ideal for getting a lot done in this regard, but I also think that might just be an excuse. There's always something! School (in the past), work, social life, the desire to relax, etc. Making time for this kind of thing feels a lot more difficult than it should be.

I'm constantly coming up with new song ideas and practicing vocals for them, but executing these ideas alone seems too overwhelming...yet I'm not productive or talented enough to be taken seriously by other musicians who could help. What can I do? Maybe it's just not meant to be? If so, how can I stop wanting this?
posted by cosmicbeast to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
What is your goal? Produce your own album? EP? A single? Play out live? Join a band or group? Maybe if you narrow down into a goal like "okay I am going to focus on trying to get an EP out by next year" it might be easier to grit down.

Or what about these other musicians. Do they really say to you that they don't take you seriously/don't help because you aren't productive or talented enough? Can you ask them for straight up honest feedback? Some of them might be at least willing to tell you what you lack so you can get those as goals at first.

What you describe is common for most music producers, from noob/amateur/professional. Even the most famous and talented of musicians may take forever from like hundreds of different half written songs or snippets before sorting out from so many ideas and hunker down to make a record.

And to give you perspective. I consider myself a musician: I've played in all sorts of bands, participated in recording sessions, had many gigs under my belt. I've never written a complete song yet recorded and I am older than you. You make music. You are a musician.
posted by xtine at 1:21 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you have two issues here - your skill level (whether perceived or real) and your perception of yourself as a "musician".

I'll address the latter first. Firstly, you seem to be equating Musician with Songwriter. Most musicians certainly compose, but plenty do not, and spend their time playing parts that other people wrote. Some write lyrics, but not melodies, and vice versa. Some write chords but not top lines, and vice versa. Musicians come in all shapes of skill and talent, and lucky too because otherwise we wouldn't have seen some of the great songwriting partnerships - Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Johnny Marr and Morrissey, etc etc.

My point is, if you can't finish a song on your own, why not find a writing partner or a band that you can work with. Go through a few if you like. My recommendation for how to do this - go to an open mic or an unsigned night and talk to anyone whose sound you like. Make connections, try out various collaborations. You can work with a dozen at a time too, there's no cheating in the musical world!

Luckily, this may also fix your other issue - skill level. There is nothing on this earth that will make you up your musical game faster than playing regularly with peers who you want to keep up with. It's just like having a running buddy. You may also find that they help you find your strengths.

Citation: I used to feel like a failure as a guitarist because I stalled at Skill Level:Singer/Songwriter, but then I started co-writing with a dear friend on some of his instrumental pieces, with good results. He pointed out to me that I may not be Jimmy Page any time soon, but I have a knack for melody writing - this really helped validate my self-perception as a "musician".

TL;DR: find where you fit, and try to challenge yourself more - best way to do both is to play more with others.
posted by greenish at 1:27 AM on August 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, post your unfinished pieces to MeFi Music - we'll give you constructive critique, and you might even find collaborators there :)
posted by greenish at 1:29 AM on August 31, 2013

You need to attach yourself to performers who are serious about actually releasing recordings and playing gigs. Then you keep up or you are humiliated and kicked out.
posted by pracowity at 4:50 AM on August 31, 2013

I like "Art and Fear" as a relevant and useful read. I recommend it constantly, for two reasons. It addresses exactly this syndrome and it address its correlate, the tendency of anyone involved in artistic endeavor to minimize their personal value based on their position on a skill continuum. The medium is irrelevant; music, photography, sculpture, dancing.... all the same.

A wonderful side effect is that you can also apply the same reasoning and techniques to life, in general. Dissatisfaction and lack of confidence are endemic to most folks, especially as they transition from youthful dependence into self-directed life.

Quick read. One, long sitting or a weekend.

o..... lest you think training is the key... Hendrix taught himself and played his guitar backwards to most of us. I've had friends who played it backwards and with the low strings down. Bob Dylan (a 60's era musician) should pretty much convince you that vocal talent is optional, and his observation that to be a songwriter, "All you need is three chords and the truth" is priceless. Joan Sutherland, an opera singer with the voice of an angel (deceased now) who had perhaps the best trained voice in the last century was a musician, as were all those dudes in the Beastie Boys. The spectrum is wide and has room for both the harp and the washboard. Wherever you are is legit. We're on a path. Music (or art or life) is always a path, never a location. Moving forward is the criteria and output/production/product is the measure. Art and Fear amplifies this, but that's the basic message. Quality follows quantity.
posted by FauxScot at 6:50 AM on August 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Some good advice above, but I'd like to point out that true artists don't desire to become an artist, it is their necessity to pursue their art, and therefore by definition become an artist, regardless of how successful they are in the eyes of society. I'm sorry to say this, but if you're thinking "I have the desire to be a musician, how can I be one?", then you're probably not a musician. I'd suggest you to take the pressure off yourself to become a "musician", and just enjoy music making in your own way, and see where that leads. Who knows, maybe down the line you will find that necessity to make music (which is both a blessing and a curse), or maybe it will just turn out to be a hobby, which is equally great. Either way, you should not romanticize the notion of becoming a musician.
posted by snufkin5 at 8:55 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are many types of musicians - e.g. sessionist, producer, topliner (type of songwriter), sound engineer, vocalist, arranger, etc etc...
It would probably help if you decided what sort of musician you want to be, and if you intend to be a professional / make a career out of it. I suppose anyone can be a 'musician' in a very broad sense (i.e. they could just play as a hobby or be involved in music in some way) so it might be better if you actually define what you want to do or be in this capacity.

If you just want to write and record more songs for your own enjoyment (? is this what you want?) then maybe try setting yourself some deadlines and breaking down the task into smaller components. Some people try to write 1 rough/demo song a day, some people set a schedule with different deadlines for lyrics, melody/chords, arrangement, recording, mixing, etc...
If you feel you aren't self-disciplined enough to do this, then maybe you could try joining a songwriting/musician group, or signing up for some sort of music class. (The type of class would probably depend on what exactly you want to do... like if you want to be a songwriter, take a songwriting class. If you want to learn how to play an instrument or sing well, take an instrument / voice class. To learn how to arrange, take an arrangement class...) That way you have peer pressure or a teacher compelling you to keep improving and turning in work.
posted by aielen at 8:58 AM on August 31, 2013

Best answer: If I could tell you to do ONE thing that I think would help you, just ONE thing, I would say that this will probably help you the most to get 'unblocked' and get started on the right path:

Make it a goal to write 3 songs with someone else.

Either with a whole other band or just one person. Don't stop until you've written ALL three, even if they totally suck.

You say that you were in a band before... I think you need to try again. Nothing makes you start to feel better about yourself as a creative person than a true collaboration. I spent almost my entire 20s "wanting to be a musician" - much like you describe here. I'd listen to lots of folky singer/songwriter style music, and I'd do open mics and solo gigs here and there, but nothing to write home about. I'd spend lots of time and money collecting instruments and recording equipment, and my ability to write songs and finish them was very, very slow. I probably spent more time daydreaming about what I should be able to do with those things I'd bought than actually using them. I'd have a few rare surges of creativity where I'd complete a song and I'd feel okay performing those as a solo singer/songwriter, but I felt pretty trapped by what I didn't know and what I didn't have. I always felt gated by my lack of ability to play guitar to a certain standard, or the fact that I didn't have a real piano, or whatever. "If only I had a Martin guitar instead of this Ovation, I'd be productive." or "If only I could instantly transpose songs on the spot without a capo, I'd be writing songs all day long." etc, etc.

It wasn't until I joined a TOTALLY different style of band (an all-girl punk rock band, in fact), doing something I wasn't very confident at (lead guitar, I'm more of a singer and frankly, a terrible guitarist) that things changed for me. The key was that I was in a band with friends whom I truly enjoyed playing music with. We had fun pretty much all of the time; if what we were doing wasn't fun, it was clearly not worth doing. Because we all liked each other so much and were supportive of one another's efforts, people liked watching us play our music.

Eventually it dawned on me that I didn't need to do everything by myself, I just needed to be playing music with people who liked what I had to bring to the table and vice versa. Sure, you could spend all of your time locked in your room, applying painful and rigid discipline to one thing, until you become good at it, and then release it to the world. If you want to be Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen, that's one road. But if you want to connect to people with your music, you have to start, well.. connecting to people who make music!

Another part of the equation for me was being a little too susceptible to the "coolness" that surrounds music and performance. It's very easy to worry if you try this one thing (say, pop metal), whether or not people who like this other thing will be turned off (say, indie rock). It's also easy to worry that people will not like you because you don't fit in perfectly with a certain type of style ("I call myself punk but I don't have a single tattoo! I'M PROBABLY A FRAUD!!!"). There are people who do think that way and will totes judge you, but they probably won't like what you have to offer no matter what you do, so don't let that sink you.

For me, after collaboration became useful, and not scary, it became a lot easier to not worry about whether or not what I was doing was cool, or genre-appropriate, or whatever. I still get mired with those worries, but it's easier for me to look past them now. It then became a combination of being willing to try new things and paying close attention to people who are GOOD to collaborate with and people who are BAD.

There is a very delicate balancing act here. All of the things that trip you up are there because they hold partial truths. So here are some things I know that I thought once that turned out to be kind of incorrect thinking.

I don't want to try to play in a band because I am not good enough at my instrument.

It's true that you can't just consistently suck out loud and never get better and expect that people will want to play with you. So you're right to question your skill level and wonder if it's good enough. But you're NOT right to worry that you're gated to start trying to play with others. You DO have to practice. But getting together and playing is also practice. Get out there and meet people. Keep trying until you find someone (or some people) that you click with. Maybe it's a group that's all so much more instrumentally adept than you are that your skill level doesn't matter as much, because you can't sink 'em. Or maybe it's a group of people that is at or around your skill level (or even below), and you all help yourselves to get better together. Or maybe it's both! You don't have to be in only one band, you know.

I haven't got enough experience/stuff under my belt/credibility to get people to want to play with me.

Let me tell you what. Most people who love to make music love to play with other people who like to make music. If you are friendly, cool, and have some common ground - say you spend a few hours talking to someone at a show about a shared love of a certain band - all you need to do is say "hey, can we get together and jam sometime?" - this is how you get invites to jam sessions, band practices, etc etc. Just show up and play the tambourine and sing back up to start, if you're nervous.

I don't want to try anything too far outside of my comfortable genre(s) because it might limit me or seem lame.

It IS true that people like music better when it is played with confidence and style. If you are doing something super inaccessible, you'd better love the hell out of it if you're going to get people to pay attention. If you're doing something really cheesy, you'd better sell the hell out of it if you want to charm people rather than annoy them. If you are really into what you're doing, though, that will come through, and there will be people who just adore you for it. The only person who REALLY gets to say whether or not you can or can't try a new genre, style of music, instrument or performance style is YOU. Just remember that and you'll be okay. The more you try new things, the more you'll start to understand what you bring to the table that you do the same every time. That's you - your own style, and it's precious and wonderful once you find it! Never apologize for your performance, or for your ability, or for your tastes. We all have good days and bad days but it's a preference and a form of expression and you have nothing to be embarrassed about or to apologize for.

If I can't write an entire song myself, I don't deserve to call myself a true musician.

I got SO stuck with this for so long. I'd write songs that had tons and tons of potential, but I don't really have a good mind for theory. There'd be a chord change I'd know it needed - or maybe I just knew it was missing something, but I wasn't sure what - and I'd figure, well, my song just sucks. THEN I started writing with other people. I'd bring an early idea and they'd flesh it out. Then their ideas would give ME new ideas! It's amazing once that starts happening! The end result is that you have a song that is much, much better than if you had just tried to work it out yourself. Pretty much every time.

I don't know how to collaborate. I feel intimidated by musicians who are better than me and irritated by those who I just don't gel with.

This is a tricky problem I have experienced a lot. It was only until I had tried a LOT of different bands that it became possible for me to tell the difference between what is not working at all, vs. what is possible to work with a few changes and focus, vs. what is TOTALLY going to work with patience. Here's what I think - none of this is time wasted. If you spend some time trying to make music with some other folks and it doesn't feel good to you, if you're not looking forward to it, if it doesn't feel like you're moving the ball forward (whatever that means to you), it is okay to walk away. It is always ok to walk away. Trust your gut and you'll know when it's time to cut bait.

I still, personally, have a long way to go. But when I look back at where I was 10 years ago - frustrated, totally creatively blocked, and wistful for what I thought I could do but only did not know how, it's absolutely mind numbing to think of how far I've come. Since that time, that all-girl punk band that I was in got tons of exposure, I have been in several rock bands that have been extremely fun to participate in, I have had the incredible good fortune to sing in one of the world's biggest video games, I made my own album. I have been in punk bands, rock bands, I made a country album, I was in a Vegas style Elvis/KISS themed lounge act... and I feel as though I'm only getting started.

A lot of this, for me, was right place, right time, for sure. I work in the video game industry and that opened a lot of doors for me, in terms of exposure. But I do believe that creative people are drawn to moments and places of opportunity, and what you need to do is really follow that spark to be able to grasp those lucky moments. In my opinion, being open to and willing to collaborate is key. Don't be afraid! And don't stop trying to find the connections that really works for you. If it sounds even slightly fun, do not say no. Say yes and give it a shot! And NEVER stop wanting it. You can get there!

Good luck!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:06 AM on August 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: xtine: I guess my main goals now are to record my first album and to be able to play live (preferably with a band, but I come up with a lot of lyrics and melodies on my own so I would want more of a lead role than support). Perhaps an EP would be an easier goal to accomplish. As for other musicians...I don't know that many, but I haven't actually been told anything like that...I'm just sort of assuming. I suppose I could ask for feedback.

FauxScot: I read Art and Fear a long time ago for a poetry class, but I remember breezing through it quickly and not really absorbing it, because I didn't feel I needed it at the time. It may be worth revisiting. One book I am planning to read is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

aielen: Yes, this is just for my own enjoyment at this point. But I want to feel like I'm actually doing something, too.

pazazygeek: Awesome answer, thank you! I'm going to make that my goal and I'll take your advice to heart.

More answers welcome!
posted by cosmicbeast at 2:24 PM on August 31, 2013

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